When Kevin Werbach’s Supernova report popped up in my email queue, I scanned it because I know him by reputation and have been reading his work for years. But what compelled me to write this commentary was the question he raised about “whether the openness and interoperability that have long been the hallmark of the Internet will be in force going forward.”
If you’re like me and not technical, and just want all this stuff to work, you should at very least realize that the reason the Internet works as it does is an accident of culture and technology history that goes back to its formation more than 30 years ago and the ethos that pervaded its evolution — that the Net was to be a common space, controlled by no device nor institution, and to function as the exchange medium for many independent systems that would mesh so long as they obeyed baseline protocols.
So to hear Werbach express concern about the erosion of this core principle is akin to suggesting that the heart — or the soul — of the Internet is in danger of being ripped out and stomped flat.
Or as Werbach says, offering examples rather than bombast:
“What’s happening today to Internet infrastructure (is that) Level 3 and Cogent, two major backbone carriers, are fighting about peering payments, to the point at which Level 3 has stopped carrying Cogent’s traffic. The edifice of Internet addressing is teetering, as governments put pressure on the US to give up control over the domain name system, and the mobile phone industry establishes its own self-contained address root. The network defined by its radical and pervasive interoperability seems to be breaking apart at the seams.”
There’s a lot there, not all of which I would profess to understand in detail even though I’ve been writing about technology since late in 1985. But head-butting between Level 3 and Cogent — of which I was unaware before receiving Werbach’s email — makes conceptual sense. Imagine that the Internet as a highway system, where traffic passes freely over major freeways — which in this analogy would be akin to Cogent and Level 3, which function as backbone providers, or major carriers of Internet packets. Apparently they are have issues over “peering payments” — that is, how much does one pay the other if more cars gets off one freeway onto the other. (There is a good discussion of peering in Wikipedia.)
But that’s just a case in point and Werbach is not alone in expressing concern about the interconnectedness of the Internet. Over the summer, Japanese Internet guru Joi Ito penned a commentary expressing the tension arising from demands, from nations outside the United States, for more control over naming functions on the Internet (my non-technical understanding is that the Internet works like the magic incantations of yore, in that to name a thing is to control it).
But I think the bigger challenge is not dissension but success. Commercial success. Big lava flows of gold that attract the suit-and-leather-briefcase crowd for whom interoperability may seem some silly, idealistic impediment rather than the foundation upon which the Internet is built. Again, quoting Werbach, who uses an insidery slang to describe some of the potential Net-grabbers:
“If GoogleNet, SkypeBay, MSAOL, Telco Fiberia, and CableLand emerge as competing integrated fiefdoms, we’ll see something more like the early 90’s online services, albeit on a much bigger stage.”
The ill Werbach fears was envisioned by scientist and philosopher Garrett Hardin whose 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” uses the metaphor of a the common grazing field to discuss the conflict that often exists between individual goals and the common good. The tragedy is that some herders let their flocks overgraze the commons, and thus it is lost to all. Substitute Internet packets for flocks of sheep and we may be looking at a new tragedy.
And why should that concern me, or you? Because when the history of this age is written, I believe the single most transforming event will be judged to have been the creation of an interoperable communications network accessible to anyone with the means to plug in. To lose that, and to see it replaced with a series of innovation-retardant corporate tollroads would be worse than a tragedy. It would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media